One Cheer for the Iranian Nuclear Agreement


Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during April 2015 negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, about the future of Irans’s nuclear program.
Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during April 2015 negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, about the future of Irans’s nuclear program. (photo: State Department photo/Public Domain)

Catholics should be, with reservations, celebrating and supporting the recently concluded agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program that the United Nations Security Council began to implement July 20. On a scale of zero to three “cheers,” I would offer it a single cheer.

Why should Catholics view this agreement positively?

First, it is viewed positively by our Holy Father and the U.S. bishops’ conference. Soon after the momentous signing of the international agreement between the P5+1 nations, the European Union and Iran, Pope Francis indicated his support by his spokesman:

“The agreement on the Iranian nuclear program is viewed in a positive light by the Holy See. It constitutes an important outcome of the negotiations carried out so far, although continued efforts and commitments on the part of all involved will be necessary in order for it to be fruitful.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported a negotiated settlement for years. Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., the chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Peace and Justice, said in a letter urging congressional support for the agreement:

“Since 2007, our committee on International Justice and Peace, reflecting the long-standing position of the Holy See, has urged our nation to pursue diplomacy to ensure Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For years, we have supported dialogue and a negotiated resolution of the conflict in collaboration with international partners. It is no small achievement that the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, China, Germany and France have reached this agreement with Iran.”

Second, it is viewed positively by our fellow Christians in Iran. Father Hormoz Aslani Babroudi, a Chaldean Catholic priest and the national director of the Pontifical Missionary Society of Iran, greeted the occasion with joy. “This agreement is certainly a positive step for our country, as well as the rest of the world,” he told Fides news agency. He continued, “I can say that all Christians, along with all the Iranian people, are rejoicing because their prayers were answered. From now on, it will be easier for the world to have a positive outlook toward Iran, the desire for harmony will prevail, and it will be easier to show everyone that Iran is not what some media networks report. We can work and use science for the good of the country; we can develop technologies to live better.”

Father Hormoz mentioned in particular the possibility of advances by the use of modern technology, including nuclear technology, in the fields of medicine and education.

Christians are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). The witness of our spiritual leaders and our brother Christians on the ground should encourage us to join them in rejoicing.

But there are more reasons to support this agreement. Most importantly, it restricts Iran’s ability to manufacture nuclear weapons for, at least, the next decade. At present, Iran is already a “nuclear weapon threshold nation.”

The agreement (actually a series of political and technological agreements) includes many provisions that severely limit Iran’s ability to make any nuclear weapons — and furthermore makes it nearly impossible for Iran to make numerous weapons. A good summary of these provisions is provided by David Blair, a correspondent for the British daily newspaper The Telegraph (edited for American English):

1. Iran will sacrifice two-thirds of its ability to enrich uranium, the vital process that could be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb. All but 6,000 of Iran’s 19,500 centrifuges will be placed in storage, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 
2. Iran will export all but 300kg of its entire stockpile of eight tons of low-enriched uranium. 
3. The combined effect of these measures will be to place Iran about 12 months away from having enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb — compared with its current “breakout” time of three or four months. 
4. The Fordow enrichment plant, which was built in secret inside of a hollowed-out mountain, will be converted into a research center. Almost two-thirds of the centrifuges in Fordow will be removed, and the remaining 1,000 will not be used to enrich uranium. 
5. Iran’s heavy-water plant at Arak will be redesigned and rebuilt to make it impossible to produce weapons-grade plutonium. 
6. Iran will implement the “Additional Protocol” safeguards agreement, giving IAEA inspectors more powers to monitor its nuclear plants and other facilities.
7. Once the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has taken these steps, the United States and its allies will lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions, including oil embargos and financial restrictions. This could release more than $100 billion of frozen Iranian assets. 
8. The United States and its allies will also recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as guaranteed by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. 
9. Iran will remain subject to a U.N. arms embargo for five years. Restrictions will stay on its ballistic missile program for another eight.

Christians should also be supporting these agreements because they offer a pathway to the lifting of some of the crippling economic sanctions on the people of Iran. Economic sanctions are often an effective tool, short of war, to deal with problematic actions of a nation state. But economic sanctions usually end up hurting many, many innocent people, especially the poor.

The current sanctions imposed on Iran, especially its oil exports, have caused widespread suffering due to inflation and the loss of value for the Iranian currency. One only has to remember the devastating impact and thousands of premature deaths caused by our sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s to recognize the damage that sanctions can do to the innocent.


Imperfect Agreement

Of course, this is not anywhere near a perfect agreement. In diplomacy there is no such thing. But the objections that I have heard raised ring pretty hollow when examined closely. These include:

“The inspection regime is not rigorous enough.”

Many have cited the possibility for a 25-day negotiated window for “disputed sites.” What these critics miss is this window would only come into effect if it was believed that Iran was cheating on the agreement at a military site. All the current nuclear sites will be placed under a very strict set of inspection requirements.

Remote cameras and sealed sensory devices will monitor much of Iran’s nuclear facilities for at least 15 years. While one might want 24/7 access everywhere in Iran, no nation would agree to such an arrangement. Would the U.S. ever give 24/7 access to a foreign nation or inspection team to inspect the Pentagon or White House?  

I personally would have liked an agreement that had less possibility of delaying tactics when a possible conflict occurred over an inspection of sensitive Iranian military sites. But because we are dealing with the type of technology and material that is very difficult to move and hide, the inspection regime will most likely work.

The International Atomic Energy Agency will be responsible for the monitoring. Director General Yukya Amaro told The Wall Street Journal that the various protocols that Iran agreed to “are quite powerful verification tools” that allow for the monitoring of, as the Journal puts it, “the entire supply chain of Iran’s nuclear program.” We should trust that the IAEA knows how to do its job.

“We did not even address human-rights issues or the release of the American journalist or pastor or other Americans held in Iran.”

This agreement is not a human-rights treaty. Neither do we want, as a normal course of diplomacy, to make international agreements on arms control the place where we negotiate for hostages. If we did this regularly, it would provide an incentive to other nations to grab hostages as “bargaining chips” in every international agreement. Hopefully there are other ongoing negotiations concerning these U.S. citizens. A very positive sign that Iran is entering these agreements in goodwill would be the return of these individuals. I hope and pray they do so.

“I am opposed to it because Obama is for it.”

This is a very pernicious reason to oppose this agreement. I include it only because I have heard it often, and people have even responded to me directly with this rationale. It is un-American and un-Christian to hold this view.

Of course, Catholics disagree with the president in several areas. But he is our president, elected twice by our fellow citizens. We are commanded in Romans 13:1-8, 1 Timothy 2:2 and 1 Peter 2: 13-17 to obey, to pray and to honor our government leaders (remember, Peter and Paul wrote this when men like Nero ruled).

Christian moral teaching demands that we cooperate with them when we can and resist them only as a last resort when there are no other moral options. Absolute and total opposition to Obama is irrational and harmful to the common good of our nation.

“With this agreement America has abandoned Israel.”

All of our agreements with Israel remain in effect. No one is naïve about Iran being an enemy of Israel or the United States, least of all any American administration of whatever party. This type of negotiation and agreements are executed by enemies, not friends, with the goal of maintaining some sort of peace. These are the type of agreements we made with the U.S.S.R. and China during the Cold War. They are never ideal, nor perfect, but they can help keep things from getting worse. They can help contain and limit the damage a hostile nation can do.

Obviously, Israel (and the U.S.) will need to remain vigilant about possible aggression from Iran. But that has been true since at least 1979 — and some would say since the beginning of recorded history. Iran is now a nuclear-threshold nation. The United States is a declared nuclear power and the single remaining world superpower. Israel is an undeclared nuclear power. Deterrence, with all of its moral problems and uncertainties (a discussion worthy of another column), has worked before, and it should work again.

Everyone who is opposed to this agreement must answer this simple question: What are the reasonable alternatives to a negotiated settlement with Iran? There are none. This is why Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France, has called this agreement “the best imperfect accord.” The only alternatives to a negotiated settlement are a continuation of the economic embargo or war. The latter would be suicidal and result in the deaths of thousands upon thousands.

As I wrote in April, a war against Iran would be a massive undertaking that would have far-reaching consequences. Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, has stated in an interview with Salon:

“If we attacked Iran, they would go nuclear. If we attacked Iran, it would take 500,000 troops, 10 years and trillions of dollars. Alexander the Great almost died in Iran. You don’t want to invade Iran. Iran has 75 million people. It’s the most stable country in the region.”

And the economic embargo was already falling apart. Many countries, including Russia and China, as well as several European nations, were not willing to maintain the embargo indefinitely.

I, for one, wished that the administration had driven a harder bargain. I would have liked to address Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas (although diplomats everywhere say this would have made any agreement impossible and moved the focus off of Iran’s nuclear ambitions).

I believe that they could have insisted on an even more intrusive inspection regiment. I would have liked the agreement to have been more open-ended, covering a longer period than the 10, 15 or 25 years that it does. But in every negotiation there is give and take.

The United States was not the only nation at the table. This agreement does, right now, upfront, significantly hinder any efforts Iran could make to produce a nuclear arsenal. It is supported by the Holy Father and our bishops and most of the nations of the world.

Thus, I say: One cheer for the accord with Iran.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, S.T.D, is the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas.

A 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Rhodes Scholar,

he also serves as professor of Christian ethics and leadership at Donnelly College.